March 24, 2023 at 9:29 p.m.
Fillmore County doubles animal units
That is because the Fillmore County Board of Commissioners approved a raise in the county’s animal unit cap, moving it from 2,000 to 4,000.
The board unanimously approved the decision Feb. 28 at its meeting at the Fillmore County Courthouse in Preston after receiving the recommendation from the Fillmore County Planning Commission.
Tom Thompson, a member of the planning commission and a crop farmer, said he feels the decision has important economic impacts for the community.
“There’s a lot of people who don’t understand how many mouths are fed from a farm,” he said. “It’s not just the people that own the farm or work on the farm. It’s all the mouths that are fed from that farm and other farms doing business with other local businesses.”
Fillmore County Commissioner Duane Bakke said one of the reasons for increasing the cap was to give freedom to family farms to expand as more family members join the operation. On family farms, he sees the increases in efficiencies and safety as a key reason for expanding.
“If you have a site, and you find a good site to build a dairy facility, rather than build a whole bunch of small sites, you’re better off to build in a larger location or a larger facility that has more safeguards in place,” Bakke said.
Thompson said he sees farm consolidation as a fact that must be lived with. With this reality, he wants to make sure farmers have the opportunity to move forward on their operations.
“Having a cap really shackles the farmer as to what they are able to do,” Thompson said.
On Feb. 16, a public hearing was held before the planning commission for testimony. Bakke said about 35 individuals testified, with about an even split of for and against. The commission also received letters and emails. Bakke said that more of the emails were against the increase; however, only one-third of the email opposition came from people who live in Fillmore County.
Margaret Johnson, a dairy farmer from Fillmore County, testified at the public hearing in favor of the cap change. She said she appreciates the decision to raise the cap because it sets a precedent of agriculture being a priority for Fillmore County.
The state of Minnesota defines an animal unit using the manure made by one slaughter steer or heifer as equal to one animal unit. They define a mature dairy cow of 1,000 pounds or more as 1.4 animal units, a pig that is 55 to 300 pounds is considered 0.3 animal units, and a chicken of 5 pounds at a facility which uses a liquid manure system is considered 0.033 animal units.
With the change to Fillmore’s cap, farms that wish to increase their animal units over 2,000 go through a multi-stage process. First, there is permitting through the state of Minnesota and its agencies. Then, there is federal permitting. Once these permits are in place, the farm must have an Environmental Assessment Worksheet done which includes a public hearing. Once a farm has completed these steps, they can apply for a conditional use permit with Fillmore County.
Bakke said that approval of these permits is dependent on the merit of the application.
“There’s people that apply for things already now that get turned down on sight,” he said.
Bakke said one of the main concerns with the change brought up in the public hearing was water quality.
Vance Haugen, who milks 190 cows in Fillmore County, testified against the increase. Haugen is concerned that the large liquid manure systems necessary to support large animal unit operations will have a negative effect on the water supply because of the unique geological makeup of Fillmore County. Haugen said Fillmore County has karst topography, meaning it has porous limestone rock and that the area is known for sink holes and caves.
“Not that I’m against animal agriculture,” he said. “I’ve got a feedlot permit for I think 350 head. … I think we should have more livestock on the land. The ‘and’ part about it is that we have to be really careful about these liquid manure systems and especially in this part of the world.”
Some of the other concerns raised by opponents to the change included air quality and damage to local roads.
Thompson said farmers will do the right thing when it comes to their animals, the environment and their neighbors around them because their livelihood depends on it.
“As a farmer myself, I’m very aware of what (they) deal with every day and dealing with their livestock,” he said. “The welfare of their livestock, land and community is always in the forefront of their mind. I just don’t believe that any farmer would do anything to disrupt any of those priorities.”
The original cap of 2,000 animal units dates to a 1997 rule that Bakke himself helped implement. Bakke said at the time, the rule was put in place to protect Fillmore County from a 2.5 million poultry operation that was trying to find a place to establish in Minnesota.
Currently, most farms in Fillmore County are well below the previous 2,000 animal unit cap. Bakke said the decision to raise the cap is not going to change Fillmore County very much and he does not anticipate many applications for increased animal units.